Which of these four things is different from the others: the iOS App Store, Android’s Google Play, the Chrome browser’s Chrome Web Store and the Microsoft Store built into Windows 10?
If you answered the Microsoft Store, you’re right. While the other three download stores host many thousands of useful apps of every type and description, and have a thriving, engaged audience, the Microsoft Store offers very few truly useful downloads and has an indifferent base of users who rarely bother to spend the time to rate and review the software the store hosts.
The problem isn’t that there’s not a lot of great Windows software to download. There’s plenty of it - just not on the Microsoft Store.
In November 2018, Mike Fortin, Microsoft’s corporate vice president for Windows, said in a blog post that there are “over 35 million application titles with greater than 175 million application versions” available for Windows 10. Having reviewed Windows software for many years, and at one point been in charge of one of the web’s largest Windows download sites, I have no reason to doubt him.
The problem is that you can get very few of those millions of downloads through the Microsoft Store.
And that’s why it’s time for Microsoft to either kill the Microsoft Store or fix it so it carries the full breadth of Windows software, instead of a small, largely useless subset of it.
The culprit: UWP
To see why the Microsoft Store has been such a failure, you need to understand what kind of software it hosts. It doesn’t carry popular Windows software such as Microsoft Office, the freeware CCleaner that cleans up Windows, the Google Chrome browser, and millions of others.
That kind of software, called Win32 apps, runs on the Windows desktop, and will run on any version of Windows, including Windows XP, Windows 7, Windows 8 and Windows 10. The Microsoft Store only carries software that was built using what Microsoft calls the Universal Windows Platform (UWP).
UWP was rolled out as part of one of the worst versions of Windows ever devised, Windows 8. Windows 8 was a bifurcated, schizophrenic operating system, with a new interface Microsoft originally called Metro uneasily coexisting with the traditional Windows desktop.
Microsoft hoped to turn the Windows desktop and the Win32 apps that run on it into a side note to Windows, making UWP apps the centre of its universe. UWP apps would run not just on Windows 8 (and, later, Windows 10), but also on Windows Phone and any other future Windows operating systems Microsoft might create.
The idea was that you’d write one UWP app, and it would magically run everywhere. Everywhere, that is, except on any version of Windows written before Windows 8, and on the desktop portion of Windows 8 and Windows 10.
Things didn’t go well. For one thing, Windows Phone was a colossal flop and Microsoft killed it. For another, developers saw no market for UWP apps, so have largely stayed away from it. Making things worse, UWP apps proved to be severely under-powered compared to Win32 apps.
And even when developers create both UWP and Win32 versions of the same app, the UWP version ends up with far fewer features than the Win32 version, and so people stay away from them.
The Windows Store (as the Microsoft Store was originally dubbed) was created as part of Windows 8 to host only UWP apps. And at launch, very few of them existed. I wrote at the time that the Windows Store “seems as barren of goods as a Romanian grocery store during the depths of the Ceauşescu regime.”
These days, it’s not quite that bad. But so much of the software is so inessential that the Microsoft Store feels like a place specialising in cheap, off-brand goods on half-empty shelves that is holding a going-out-of-business sale in an economically depressed area on the way to nowhere.
As the best example of how pointless much of the software is, consider how the Microsoft Store handles the most popular Windows application on the planet, Microsoft Office.
If ever there were an application that Microsoft would want to shine on UWP, it would be Microsoft Office, because that would spur other developers to write great apps for UWP as well.
But Microsoft doesn’t even have a version of Office that runs on UWP, seven years after UWP was introduced. When you want to buy Microsoft Office from the Windows 10 Microsoft Store, you’re routed to buying it instead on the web, where you buy the Win32 version.
You could, if you were a masochist, download a Microsoft UWP app called Office from the Microsoft Store - but it’s not really Microsoft Office. Instead, it’s a useless companion to Office. You need to already own a copy of the Win32 version of Office to use it.
And what does this companion app do? To give you a sense of how woeful a piece of software it is, I’ll quote Microsoft’s description of it in the Microsoft Store: “The Office app enables you to get the most out of Office by helping you find all your Office apps and files in one place so you can jump quickly into your work.”
Oh, be still my heart! I can’t stand the excitement!
The leading Edge?
Microsoft appears to recognise it’s got a problem on its hands, though. When interviewed for an article about why Microsoft is killing the UWP-based Edge browser app in favour of one that will be based on open-source Chromium, Joe Belfiore, corporate vice president of Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices division, admitted, “It’s not that UWP is bad, but UWP is not a 35-year-old mature platform that a ridiculously huge amount of apps have been written to.”
Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
Considering that Microsoft has given up on the UWP version of Edge, it seems clear the company recognises that UWP will never hit the big time. Even more evidence is that Microsoft has decided that the Windows Store will now carry Win32 games.
Microsoft’s Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, wrote in a blog post at the end of May, “We recognise that Win32 is the app format that game developers love to use and gamers love to play, so we are excited to share that we will be enabling full support for native Win32 games to the Microsoft Store on Windows. This will unlock more options for developers and gamers alike.”
It's time for Microsoft to give non-gaming Windows users the same kind of support. The company should open up the Microsoft Store to all kinds of Win32 software, not just games.
That would turn the store into a thriving marketplace, where people would go whenever they were looking to download Windows software. Isn’t that the point of a download store?
If it doesn’t do that, Microsoft should just kill it. There’s no reason for the Microsoft Store to live if it only carries the kind of software no one wants to use.